At the 1960 Olympic games, a 60-something-year-old man, rail thin, with a full head of white hair, took to the practice track adjacent to the main Olympic stadium and commenced to run as hard as he could. The gangly elderly man grimaced and strained to complete the 3 and ¾ of a lap which makes up the Olympic equivalent of the mile– the 1,500 meter run. Crossing the imaginary finish line, bent over in exhaustion, the sporadic onlookers rightfully questioned what this old man was doing. This was the Olympic games, everyone else was among the best in the world getting ready to take their shot at gold. The old man wandered over to his younger pupil and quipped, “You may run faster than me. But you will not run harder.”
His pupil, Herb Elliott, would be lining up to race the best in the world that evening. The elderly man, Percy Cerutty, was Elliott’s coach. In the hours leading up to the race, Cerutty was sending his star pupil a message. I’m with you. I may not be able to run as fast as you, but I have been and will continue to be part of this journey with you. He was sending a message of belonging and mutual sacrifice to the man who would line up against the best in the world in a few short hours. That the effort is what matters, and we are both here to give absolutely everything we have. He was shifting his athletes expectations, freeing him up to perform. It should come as no surprise that Cerutty later wrote, “Great performance is the result of the intrinsic worth as found and developed in the individual.” Elliott went on to win the Olympic Gold medal in the 1500 meter run, setting an Olympic and World Record in the process.
Eight years earlier at the 1952 Olympic Games, Emil Zatopek would complete the unthinkable. He won the 5k, 10k, and marathon at the same Olympics. A feat that to this day has never been matched. If you watched Zatopek run, it was not pretty. His shoulders would hunch up, his face would writhe in pain. The Czech runner’s nickname gave away what people thought of him, “The beast of Prague.” And if there’s one thing everyone agreed on, he was tough.
Zatopek not only completed the unfathomable, his training was similarly beyond the scope of what most thought humanly possible. He was infamous for running endless 400 meter repeats, often 50 in a row. That’s a lot of laps around a track at a fast speed. He would also occasionally train in army boots, and even tried running while carrying his wife on his back as a means to make it more challenging.
But mere days before Zatopek began his attempt at the Historic triple, he was sleeping outside. It wasn’t because he needed fresh air. It’s because an old man had snuck into the Eastern Block of the Olympic village and he was worried that man might get in trouble. When authorities found out, Zatopek got reprimanded for allowing a ‘western spy’ into their midst. That “spy”? Percy Cerutty.
Zatopek’s generosity didn’t stop with helping Cerutty out. Years later in 1966, after his running career had ceased, Zatopek had invited the new king of distance running, Ron Clarke to run at a track meet in his native land. Clarke had set world record after world record, bringing the 5k down a phenomenal 19 seconds. Yet, Clarke’s only Olympic medal was a bronze. His front running style did not lead itself to championship racing.
After the conclusion of the meet, Zatopek took Clarke to the airport. As Clarke stepped into the plan, Zatopek discretely handed him a small box, then quickly left. Clarke was perplexed and a bit nervous. Why had Zatopek discretely handed it to him, then quickly left? Midway through the flight, he opened the box. It was an Olympic Gold medal Zatopek had won in 1952 in the 10k. A note said: “Not out of friendship, but because you deserve it”
These two stories epitomize what I tried to do in Do Hard Things. We often think winning requires a ‘win at all costs’ attitude. We think toughness is defined by some external sense of strength and machismo. But Cerutty and Zatopek point to something much deeper. That it’s genuine inner strength that counts. That, in Zatopek’s case, it’s possible to be among the best in history and be a kind, selfless, gentle soul who is willing to give away something many would nearly die for.
Or in Cerutty’s case, that true toughness comes from being on the journey with each other, that it’s about the effort more than the outcome. Or as his famous pupil Herb Elliott later said about his eccentric coaches methods, “Underneath it all there was a sort of sound philosophy based on Let’s improve ourselves as human beings, let’s become more compassionate, let’s become bigger, let’s become stronger, let’s become nicer people.”
Do Hard Things isn’t just about running. It’s a book for life, sport, parenting, and more. It’s about redefining toughness. Away from the model we thought worked in middle school football. Away from the controlling, micromanaging, authoritarian boss. And towards a model that actually does. One exemplified by Zatopek and Cerutty. That shows that you can be the best in the world, chase excellence, and be a decent human being who cares about and wants others to grow and develop.
-If you are interested in learning more about leadership and toughness, check out my new book Do Hard Things. For a limited time, you’ll receive free bonus items if you order now.